Wheel Adventures: Big hills, small animals and a Cuban country lunch

David Sovka

¡Vamos chando! “After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution…” says Rainer, “many excellent roads were constructed. Unfortunately, today we ride this one.”

He points to the road ahead, smiles, and announces: “¡Vamos chando!”

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This is a popular Cuban nonsense phrase, which nonetheless carries meaning: “Let’s roll!”

El cubano (Cuban Spanish) is different from el español (Central and South American Spanish) and el castellano (Spanish Spanish) in the same way that Newfoundland English is different from House of Lords English.

And just like the English language, el cubano is full of idiomatic expressions that make no sense, but add a kind of joyful extravagance to everyday conversation. For example, when waving goodbye, Cubans are more likely to say “¡Chao pescao!” than “¡Adiós!” like in the movies.

In case you find yourself in this situation, the correct response is: “¡Y a la vuelta picadillo!” This cutesy exchange of nonsense is just like the English expressions “See you later, alligator!” and “In a while crocodile!” It literally means “Goodbye, fish!” and “Next time, minced meat!” It comes from the Cuban state ration card, which provides the bearer with fish on the first 15 days of the month, and hamburger on the rest.

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So we all say “¡Vamos chando!” and mount up. The road before us is, indeed, a little bumpy. It is a little bumpy in the way the Grand Canyon is a little bumpy. I’m not a civil engineer, but in my estimation, the road surface is roughly a 50-50 mix of rutted, pebbly asphalt and holes. It makes for very careful cycling, especially on the downhill (my all-time favourite part of cycling).

No worries about that, because our route is mostly up! I don’t mean it is happy. I mean there is a great deal more uphill than downhill, through some warp of space-time reality and the laws of physics. This often happens to me. More so since I turned 50.

It is mid-morning and we are somewhere west of Havana, heading toward lunch at a finca (farm). Between us and food (and shade), is the tallest and longest hill of our entire tour of Cuba. Although we cannot yet see the hill, we get the sense that it is a big deal because a) Rainer takes the time to warn us about the rough road surface, the precipitous dropoff on both sides, the extreme heat, the need for hydration, etc.; and b) Rainer only smokes one cigarette before climbing onto his bike.

Soon, there it is. As promised: long, steep, no shoulders, the works. Gulp. The ultra-green landscape here reminds me of sub-tropical Northland, New Zealand, where intense rain and intense sunlight create the perfect conditions for grass to grow.

The land is too steep for crops, but it’s fine for stock — cows, horses, sheep, pigs — to wander and grow fat on the grass. And, as in in New Zealand, heavy animals wandering around wet, steep, treeless hills leads to massive land erosion.

I compare the slumping of super green, unstable, Cuban hills to those in New Zealand in order to keep from thinking about the odd noises my body is making on the way up the big hill. Should my lungs make that kind of rattling sound? Surely healthy, happy knees don’t squish? The other thought I’m trying to ignore is the accusatory one about neglecting to pack any kind of electrolytes for a week-long ride through a tropical country. Again.

Eventually — possibly 500 hours later — I crest the top of the big hill, legs on fire, chest pounding, breathing like a steam engine. My wife, bless her slim, small build, is already there, smiling and enjoying the spectacular view of the rolling farmland below us. So is Rainer, who is already half-way through a celebratory cigarette, the bastard.

One-by-one the rest of the group arrives, and collapses on the precipitous side of the road in more or less good form. A few guzzle from drink bottles or root around for granola bars from home. Rachel, the Australian, contents herself with swearing like … well, like an Australian.

Lucy, the wee student loan clerk from England, doesn’t look so well. Her pale skin is weirdly spotted in red patches, and she is shaking. This elicits comforting noises from everybody with enough wind to make them, and gives Rainer time for another cigarette. After a rest, Lucy is fine, because she is young.

This is part of pushing yourself in a climate you’re not used to. The body uses up its resources on the exertion, and in trying to stay cool. It’s a reminder to me, again, to bring the bloody electrolytes on the next trip.

Lunch with guajiros

We sit in the shade of a barn-sized mango tree. It is the only relief within panting distance on a rolling plain of tobacco-friendly red soil. “After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution,” says Rainer, waving at the fields around us, “Farms came into the hands of los guajiros, the country peoples.”

Well, sort of. After the Cuban Revolution, agriculture on the island changed from an efficient, profitable industry in the hands of a few, to an inefficient, unprofitable industry in the hands of the many. Between 1959 and 1989, Cuban agriculture — and people — only survived because the Soviet Union paid premium prices for Cuba’s main agricultural product, sugarcane, and provided Cuban farms with cheap fertilizer.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to rely on sustainable farming methods, and agricultural production fell by 54 per cent between 1989 and 1994. These were the lean years, when the Cuban people starved while America gleefully watched (grumpy Cuban exiles make up 34 per cent of Miami-Dade county), hoping the depredation would break Castro’s regime. It didn’t. The Cubans cinched their collective belt tighter and rode it out.

Again, sort of. Before the revolution, Cuba used to be the largest producer of sugar in the world, most of its harvest going to make America fat and diabetic. Today, Cuban agriculture uses 30 per cent of the land and employs 20 per cent of the working population, but contributes less than 10 per cent to the gross domestic product. Cuba grows cassava (a starchy root used to make tapioca), tobacco, citrus, coffee, potato, rice, and sugarcane, but it’s not enough. Cuba still has to import about 75 per cent of all the food its people eat.

I ponder all this as we cycle past acres of thick, leafy plants growing low and lush in the red soil. It is tobacco, of course, named by the World Health Organization as the world’s single greatest preventable cause of death. Naturally, this farm of preventable death is our lunch stop.

We dismount in front of a small wooden home, just off the road. An old woman in gumboots, cheetah-print blouse and dirty bucket hat stands under the awning of the roof, hands on ample hips, considering the dirty dozen of us.

After a half-minute, she bursts into a magnificent smile, and greets us with kisses. This is the Cuban whirlwind, La Señora Louisa. Now that her husband is dead, Louisa runs the family farm on her own. Serving a hearty lunch to infrequent visitors far from Havana and the main highway helps make ends meet. The smile and kisses may be good for business, but I believe this is just who she is: lovely.

We sit on small, ancient stools at a long bench under a plastic tarp behind the small farmhouse. Next to the al fresco lounge is a cinderblock cooking shed, in which Louisa busies herself with our mid-day meal. There is no light in the cooking shed, just much steam, clanging of pots, and authentic guajiro exclamations.

We are served fresh-but-awful guava juice, and then a steady stream of food makes its way to our table: large pots of soup and steamed plantains, and plates piled high with beans, rice, and various do-it-yourself cuts of pork and chicken. It is delicious.

It is a balanced farm meal. What I mean to say is the steady stream of food coming out of the cooking shed is neatly balanced by the steady stream of live chickens, piglets, kittens and puppies wandering into the cooking shed. I swear I’m not making this up. Some of these small animals later wander out of the kitchen, others do not.

This is Cuba. This is Cubans doing the best they can, even though many things in life remain difficult and crappy.

This is 500 years of toil in a tropical forge, pounded by various empires and ideologies. This is a brave and tough people, and I suspect their head-down-do-the-best-you-can approach has something to say to me and the parts of my life that also remain difficult and crappy.

¡Vamos chando!

> Next week: Delighting in authentic Cuban music.

> Previous instalments here

Cuba quick facts

• Public nose blowing is considered to be extremely rude in Cuba

• Don’t drink the water; cholera and typhoid are a concern, as are other “minor microbes”

• The island was originally inhabited by Taino tribes, relatives of the Arawak people who populated most of the Caribbean

• We travelled with Intrepid Travel

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